Four Mennonite Sons

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There was, one hundred years ago, a Mennonite family with four sons. They lived near a small rural village on the outskirts of a bustling city, with their three sisters, and two parents. Life was simple. They would get up early, milk the cows, then clean the stalls, before heading in for a hearty breakfast at mom’s dining room table, then out for the fieldwork or to cut firewood. The seasons of planting and harvesting were busy times, but there was always plenty of work year-round. There were community events, almost always involving donated labor, to raise a barn or help some struggling neighbor harvest their crops, but life revolved around the daily chores, tending to the animals, the repetitive cycles of the crops, occasional trips to town and church attendance.

In their spare time, evenings before going to bed or after dinnertime on the slower seasons, these boys would read. They had a keen interested in history and current events. The books gave them a window into the world beyond the horizon, beyond the slow pace of his agricultural lifestyle, where great men made important decisions, tales of war, of how his Anabaptist ancestors had suffered intensely for their faith, stories of missionaries traveling to exotic locations, reports the new technology that promised to change everything, and all of this captivated these young men. Their 8th-grade education and sheltered agrarian lifestyle may have left them in wide-eyed wonderment—like the first time they saw that WW1 surplus Jenny JN-4 biplane flying over the family farm—but this did not make them ignorant or lacking in intelligence.

The eldest son, Joseph, was the spitting image of his father, he had seen the farm grow, had participated in the hard work and toil right from the beginning, this simple lifestyle was as ingrained in his heart as the dirt was ground into his calloused hands. He had his dad’s work ethic, would never complain about physical labor, and he had that wiry strength common to farm boys. It is said that once, as a teenager, one of the town boys seeing this naive Mennonite, tried to pick a fight, even landing a blow, before John gave his antagonist a big bear hug, repeated “I don’t want to fight” and then put the stunned bully down. That bully would go on to be the mill owner, a friend, who would always tell that story, but John would laugh and claim that it was exaggerated, a tall tale. John, who had basically inherited his father’s farm, would continue to implement new techniques, was very successful, a respected member of the local community, married his sweetheart and they faithfully attended the church of his childhood.

The second oldest, the ever-inventive Henry, found a way to improve a farm implement, he started manufacturing in the shop on his dad’s farm, but soon outgrew the shop and purchased some land nearer to the city where he built his first factory. By following his passion for business, employing his hardworking heritage, he became very wealthy and could afford to treat his child to luxuries he could not have even imagined at their age. His life was always full of activities, parties, baby showers, vacations (his wife loved the beach, how could he say no?) and, of course, the daily grind of running an industrial production schedule. His life was dominated by the clock, by the calendar of events, the sports teams, politics, etc. He loved technology and one day brought home a brand new cabinet radio/record player that he had purchased at Sears. But, as busy as they were, and despite leaving his father’s old-fashioned church behind, religion still played an important role in the life of his family and he did his best to instill conservative values, his charitable giving (not for attention) made him a noteworthy character and admired amongst those in need.

Hudson was the third of the sons, said to be named after the famed Protestant missionary to China (although it may have been the automobile of the same name), was the more earnest of the four sons. One day an evangelist came to town, despite attendance being discouraged by the church elders, he (with his brothers) was in the audience. The message tugged at his sensitive heart, he rose to his feet shaking, walked the sawdust trail, and had a “born again” experience. Now, truth be told, he had never really been that rebellious, he had had some terrible guilt about seeing some female peers taking a dip in the pond and spending an extra moment observing, but he had always been thoughtful, considerate, and conscientious sort. But now, freedom from his sin, he was determined to serve. He taught at the newly formed Mennonite high school, eventually became a founding member of Mennonite World Aid, an outreach of the conference created to appease those longing to be missionaries, and even did a stint in post-WW2 Europe. He raised his large family to be Anabaptist (although he saturated them with fundamentalist literature) and was followed everywhere by his adoring perpetually pregnant wife.

Then there was Clyde. Clyde was the black sheep of the family, saw John as naive, not too interested in technology like Henry (other than his camera) and certainly far more cynical than Hudson. He didn’t have much appreciation for the farm life. He soon realized that his church was taught by ignorant rubes who got their “ordination” by seeming sincere enough to nominate and then picking up the right Bible. He at first decide to do the Mennonite missionary thing, but he was more or less there to observe and take pictures, and then headed off to university to satiate his hunger for knowledge. Yet, beneath all of this ‘liberal’ smugness, was a compassionate and caring heart. He would go on to write books, people loving to hear about his experience growing up as a traditional Mennonite (although things had really changed significantly before he was old enough to remember) and he was eventually hired as the pastor of the big conference church. Unlike his forebearers, he used his pulpit to spread about social issues, encouraging diversity, reprimanding the “ethnic church” for not caring enough about minorities, the poor, victims, etc.

All of the sons remained Mennonite. And yet all, besides John, had dramatically changed what it meant to be Mennonite. Even John’s life became more chaotic and cluttered than that of his father’s, some of his sons gave up farming (land was too expensive) and worked at his brother Henry’s factory, others (also smitten by an emotional ‘revival’ preacher” carried out Hudson’s vision, but all remained active in their congregations. Henry’s sons embraced the comforts of modern life, they drove muscle cars, listened to popular music and were a little wild before settling down. Of course, Hudson’s sons, all home-schooled (a necessity on the mission field) were a mixture of sheltered and exposed, they all thought of their father as sort of saintly character and were determined to spread ‘Anabaptism’ to the corners of the world. Then there was Clyde’s only child, an avowed feminist, decrying the patriarchy, privilege, police brutality, and basically indistinguishable from the other trust-fund babies who shared his far-leftist views—to him Jesus was basically a political tool, a means to shame his more practical cousins, and a philosopher superseded by Karl Marx.

Nothing about the new generation was the same as their grandfathers. Horses had been long replaced by tractors, the suburbs had encroached on the farmland inheritance and the influence of the ‘liberal’ cousins was having an impact on Joe’s old Mennonite orthodoxy that had been unquestioned for decades, more and more switched from farming to carpentry or manufacturing as economic realities pressed into their communities. More of Henry and Hudson’s descendants (who still crossed paths as conservative Mennonites) became disenchanted with the status quo, some looking for a more lively worship experience, others being disillusioned by the Protestant influence started to question the foundation of their religious tradition, some were angry about hidden abuses, and there were special conferences held to discuss the “Anabaptist identity” crisis. The trappings of modern life had slowly but surely crept into their lifestyle, smartphones were prevalent, pornography caused anxiety amongst many and the austerity of the past would have been appealing if they had the time to stop and think about it.

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Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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I’m sure you are familiar with them, you know, that family who has a life that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, always so idyllic and cute. In fact, they are so adorable they are annoying. This sort of charmed life comes a sort of “holier than thou” smugness. Sure, they are too perfect to say it outright, they always religiously maintain that facade of sweetness, but they often have the easy answers that often betray their true cluelessness.

I can recall, for example, a lovely twenty-something, themselves engaged, who with complete sincerity suggested that my romantic struggles may be God’s will for me to remain single. They themselves successful because of their endearing charm and connections (which to them meant divine favor) whereas my own inability to navigate was to be taken equally as a sign. Apparently they worship the God of circumstances, one that absolved them of any responsibility to help those less fortunate—other than to offer some words of encouragement and advice.

Anyhow, thank God that doctors do not subscribe to a similar thought process: “We know you are lots of pain, broken legs are not easy for sure, but have you ever considered that it might not be God’s will for you to walk? Here’s an ice cube, I suck on one of these when I’m feeling down and out…” That sort of response would probably fall under the category of medical malpractice. Likewise, the advice of those who heap a burden on the shoulders of others and yet are unwilling to lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4) are guilty of spiritual malpractice:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

The passage above, from James, contrasts the mere words of the pretentious and the gritty hands-on sacrificial love that true faith requires. Talk is cheap, my darlings. And what my advice giver really meant to say is that they were unwilling to pull out all the stops on my behalf, they themselves were comfortable with my circumstances as they had persisted for years and thus they were unwilling to confront the prejudices or cultural assumptions that had made an impossible hurdle for me. But, rather than take personal responsibility for their own indifference towards my plight, they turned it into God’s will.

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

When the news of the separation of Joshua Harris from his wife of over twenty years reached me this week it was hard not to connect it back to the courtship ideal he expressed many years ago. Harris, a “purity culture” advocate, rose to prominence in fundamentalist churches for his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in 1997. In this book unmarried Harris promoted a model of courtship that was supposed to lead to happily ever after and instead left many of us outside looking in—unable to overcome this stumbling block put in our path.

The Harris model of courtship required a level of commitment that, for the less beautiful and bold, made it virtually impossible for many of us to get started. This absurdly increased threshold of commitment meant that unmarried women, even in their mid or late twenties, refuse to go so much as a coffee date with an eligible bachelor for fear that it could lead to ‘defilement’ or marriage. The horrors of being sucked into a commitment after finding out that slightly awkward guy is a lovable child of God! I mean, isn’t that what King Solomon had in mind by “guard your heart”?

(I have about 1000 reasons to doubt that interpretation.)

Pushers of purity culture didn’t necessarily intend their model as a panacea. I’m guessing Harris and others would deny that there were guarantees of success that accompanied following their prescribed methods. I’m also pretty sure they did not anticipate the unintended consequences and damage caused by their teachings either. Nevertheless, they did “tie up the heavy, cumbersome loads” of fear and many have failed to find meaningful relationship with their religious counterparts as a result. It undoubtedly contributed to my own woes.

Sure, some, including Mr Harris, were able to get through this courtship minefield. However, that doesn’t mean it produced that perfect marriage as was promised by their courtship prescription. However, formulas aren’t going to produce happiness through the years and struggle of a marriage. If anything they built up impossible expectations for married life in the same way that they did for dating relationships and leads to future disappointment. At very least, while unwarranted confidence is attractive, nobody wants to be married to someone with all the answers.

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

For all of us who weren’t born into a Precious Moments world, who had to beg and plead, compete against the odds, claw for inches at a time, to earn our small measure of success, we can’t simply rely on circumstances. Our Pollyannaish notions of destiny and love have always went up against the headwinds of fear and brick-wall after brick-wall of rejection. We weren’t born tall, extraordinarily handsome or especially wise. If we were wait for our dreams to arrive on a silver platter we would never get anywhere.

If we were fatalists and shared the mechanical view of God’s will of those who depend on circumstances rather than faith, the faith of those who “ask, knock and seek” (Matt. 7:7-12) that Jesus described, then we could also blame circumstances for our not getting out of bed anymore. I can assure you of this, there were days where I had fight to continue, where it was only the love of another person that kept me going, and that’s what real faith is. Real faith is having the guts to face down the impossible.

The cutesy patootsy life doesn’t actually require any faith, sacrifice or grace. Everything depends on their good feelings and God’s will mysteriously never goes against their own expectations. And it works until they face that first real test. When those delusions of “meant to be” are replaced with the reality of failure. I pity those who get the rug yanked out from under their idealism at a later age. That is why I pray that Mr Harris and his family find God’s grace is sufficient even when things do not go as planned.

We need fewer books giving advice. We definitely need less advice from single men, with their graceless formulas (*ahem* Bill Gothard, are you listening?), and more faith of real action. Being a best-selling author at twenty-one might be a thrill and even good for your chances of getting married. My question is what did these idealistic men do to help others across that impossibly high threshold they created? In the end what matters is what we do to help others carry their burden.

It’s time to kiss the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” goodbye. A courtship ideal cannot prevent divorce and it seems to more often prevent marriage. It is faith of action, not a courtship ideal, that makes a successful loving relationship possible. A faith that is willing to sacrifice, truly sacrifice, for the good of another person. A faith that makes the impossible possible rather than blame God’s plan for our own unwillingness to intervene on behalf of others.

Missionaries From Hell — Revisited

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The picture above is from a glowing LancasterOnline article, from 2016, about a couple who sold everything to start an orphanage in Kenya.

A few years ago, while at an annual conservative Mennonite revivalist effort, specifically the youth tent meetings at Terry Hill, I was involved in a conversation with a parent who spoke of their great admiration of the missionary zeal of the younger generation. To this person the desire to travel to exotic places, purportedly to “share the Gospel,” was proof of sincere faith and a fulfilment of the great commission. But, having decided that questioning this paradigm would likely be misunderstood, I did not express my reservations then.

Since then I have wrote two blogs, most recently one (“Missionaries From Hell?“) as part of a series on Matthew 23 and another before that (“Missionary or Imposter?“) exploring the true meaning of a quote of famed fundamentalist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, about Christian missionary work. In both I point out the many different motives, besides a sincere desire to reach vulnerable people, why someone would leave the comforts (and boredom) of rural American life to be with a group of ambitious (and unmarried) young people. My basic point being that missionary zeal does not necessarily mean prayer cards and world travel.

My Blindspot

However, in those prior efforts, while listing the many possibilities of corrupt motivations and relating my own experiences, not once did it occur to me to add sexual predation to the list. At the time it would have seemed a bit over the top. My simply challenging the assumption that all things done in the name of Jesus are legit service “for the kingdom” may have been enough for some to tune me out. I mean, isn’t it great that some are trying to do something, even if that effort is misguided, largely ineffective and born of suspect motives?

Yes, maybe the execution was flawed, but isn’t the road to heaven paved with good intentions?

(Or maybe I’m remembering that expression wrong…?)

Anyhow, to suggest that some are there some there in this impoverished countries as a means to prey on the vulnerable would have been unconscionable until it became otherwise. When the bombshell report of Jeriah Mast’s confessions to sexually predatory behavior, both while a missionary in Haiti and also swept under the rug at home, rocked the conservative Mennonite world it immediately reminded me of the two blogs I wrote about the potential for ulterior motives.

It makes perfect sense now and should’ve years before in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. If Jerry Sandusky, the founder of an organization supposedly to help disadvantaged boys, the “Second Mile,” could use his access to the university and reputation as a former coach as a means to hide in plain sight, why not a Mennonite missionary?

Except, for some reason, it was unimaginable.

My concerns expressed missed and not because they were too critical either. No, if anything, I was too gentle and generous. All cultures have their sacred cows, it is risky business trying to confront them head on, and maybe that is what caused me to unconsciously tread lightly as not to offend. But charities and church ministries are opportunity zones for wolves in sheep’s clothing. The reality is this: The same things that draw those with pure motives to the mission also attracts those looking to exploit vulerable people.

The Bigger Issue

It certainly isn’t just the case in Mennonite missions either. In fact, the reason I’m writing is because of another case involving a Lancaster County man, a convicted sex offender, who started an orphanage in Kenya—the man in the LancasterOnline picture. Then there is that “incredible story of decades of adultery, rape, and pedophiliac sexual abuse by Donn Ketcham” mentioned by Hans Mast in his blog. And that’s only scratching the surface, only the most current and obvious examples, and who knows what is yet to come to light.

Do we have any excuse anymore not to be aware?

We can fairly easily detect a fraud when it is not one of our own. Like the Manhattan ‘pastor’ who wrote in USA Today about her late-term abortion, had a salary of $250,000 (“plus more than $150,000 in fringe benefits”) and recently lost her job over a harassment complaint involving sex toys. Most people know to be wary of men like televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who live like celebrities and fleece their flocks for Gulfstream jets. But the truth is that these aren’t the wolves relevant to conservative Mennonite (or Orthodox Christian) sheep and we do definitely have wolves amongst us.

We were warned…

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:28‭-‬29 NIV)

Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth is that we all have this potential to be the imposter or to be one who looks and acts the part of a Christian, yet is only really in it for themselves. Living the part of a religious or cultural ideal often gives you access to funding, better jobs, travel, and other opportunities. Sure, not everyone who goes abroad is a sexual predator. It is likely that this kind of abuse is the rare exception of those who travel. However, sexual predation is not the only form of exploitation.

It could be argued that populating an Instagram page with cute pictures of foreign children is more for the benefit of the one posting them. In well-funded funded Western style missions there is also plenty of power and cultural imperialism that comes along for the ride in our missionary efforts. In other words, there are many ways that a person can be a missionary from hell.